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August 2007

31 Days to a Better Blog--Day 1: Email a New Reader

Today's assignment in Darren Rowse's  31 Days to a Better Blog series is to Email a New Reader.

Writes Darren, who has built up several blogs with thousands of readers:

What I found is that when you do it (email a new reader) the chances of the readers that you email coming back to your blog again increases significantly. Get them to come back to your blog once and you increase the chances of them coming back again… and again….

This one makes total sense to me. I know that when I visit someone's blog and take the time to comment, it means more to me to have them email me back, than to have them reply to me via comments. That's why I do try to email new commenters to my blog when I get them, although I know that a few times I've fallen down on the job.

Anyway--right now I don't have any new commenters waiting in the wings, so I'm going to ask for your help to do this assignment:

  • If you're a new reader who's never written or commented before, then come out of lurk mode and write a comment or drop me a line. I PROMISE I'll email back.
  • Even if you're not a new reader, I'd like to hear from you on this topic. How do you feel when you receive an email when you comment on someone's blog? Does it make you more likely to keep reading? Or does it not make a difference to you?

31 Days to a Better Blog--A Personal Learning Experiment and a Blogger Challenge

Problogger Darren Rowse is one of my favorites when it comes to tips for maintaining a blog. Unfortunately, I often click through from my feed reader to his site to bookmark a post and then fail to actually incorporate his suggestions into my own blog. That's about to change.

Calendar_3For the next 31 days, Darren is doing a series of posts--31 Days to Building a Better Blog. He did a similar series a few years ago, but this year he's focusing on practical tips with homework for each day. He'll be sharing ideas on how to find readers, how to build a community/keep readers and on how to monetize your blog. I'm less interested in that last goal, so I may have to make up some of my own homework when we get to that part. Maybe I'll go back to Darren's 7 Days to Rediscovering Your Blogging Groove--a series I also failed to act on here.

At any rate, I've been thinking that I want to focus on becoming a better blogger, so working through these assignments seems like it could be helpful.  My plan is to follow along with Darren's homework each day. If I miss a day, I'll double up. If miss more than a day, I'll assume I'm a loser and should lose my blogging license.I'm assuming that in many cases I'll be doing a blog entry for homework, but in other cases where there isn't an entry--like with today's homework to email a new reader--I'll blog about the experience.

To see if all of these new activities have an impact, I plan look at my baseline info for July and then see what happens when I get to the end of August. Will I have more RSS subscribers? Will there be more traffic? Will people talk to each other more in comments?  Don't know, but I'm going to give it a shot and see what happens.

Want to Join In?
I think it would be really great if other bloggers who stop by here took up this challenge for themselves. It would be helpful to compare notes and see how things work out for us. If you decide that you want to participate in the 31 Days to Building a Better Blog Challenge that I'm issuing here, then:

  • Read Darren's Introductory post to the series.
  • Drop me an email to let me know that you want to participate, with a link to your blog. I'll start a list of bloggers who are joining in and we can all learn from each other and see the results.
  • If you decide to blog along, then do me a favor and tag your posts with the tag "bb31days" (which stands for "better blog in 31 days, in case you were wondering).
  • Darren's also inviting readers to share their own blog tips--so if nothing else, share a tip or two and submit them to Darren.
  • And if you REALLY don't want to participate, then please at least spread the word to those you think might want to join in.

Yeah, I know it's August and you're thinking "no homework yet!" But seriously--it'll be fun. And I'd like the company.


Make Your Organization Web 2.0 Too

As soon as I finished posting about moving your organization's website from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, I see in my feed reader (via The Agitator) that Todd Cohen at Philanthropy Journal has published a report on how nonprofits are using new media to engage constituents. Todd makes an excellent point about needing to change your operational paradigms, not just the look, feel and functionality of your web presence:

"Nonprofits that simply plug new media into old ways of doing business may be bound for the scrap heap.

To survive and thrive, nonprofits must adapt to the engaged new-media world in which individuals with easy access to computers, mobile devices and wireless connectivity are transforming the way charitable dollars are raised and social causes are promoted.

The challenge for nonprofits is to wed tried-and-true principles of operating, fundraising and service-delivery with the emerging new-media culture that engages the collective power of individual voices, values and assets for the common good."

Some ways in which we're still operating under old ways of doing business, according to the report:

  • Using one-size-fits-all approaches and not providing information and services to people based on their individual preferences.
  • Holding on to traditional organizational boundaries and not re-organizing and re-tooling around new ways of working with stakeholders.
  • Treating communications with stakeholders as a one-way medium, rather than engaging stakeholders in conversations and developing the organizational brand.
  • Not listening to younger workers who may be more in touch with the ways in which the world is changing.

The report is definitely worth a read and should be considered in conjunction with any web site changes you make. There's no point in making your site 2.0 if your organizational policies and approaches are still mired in the 1.0 ways of doing business.


Is Your Website 1.0 or 2.0?

Last week I posted on RSS-enabling your website so that visitors can subscribe to your regularly updated content. As I mentioned in that post, and as Laura Whitehead brought up in comments, RSS only makes sense, though, when your website actually provides timely news and information. If your site is simply an online brochure, then RSS isn't going to do much for you.

This got me to thinking about the fact that many organizations are still trapped in a Web 1.0, one-way approach to developing their websites. They haven't moved into the Web 2.0 approach, which emphasizes two-way communication, collaboration and feedback and websites as a service. This isn't surprising or a criticism--many organizations are still struggling with how to fit into this new world. But it is a suggestion that we need to look at the situation more carefully if nonprofits hope to transition with the way the rest of the world is moving.

Are You Website 1.0 or 2.0?

Tim O'Reilly is credited with the first articulation of Web 2.0 and its principles. You can read his discussion of that here. But that feels a little too complicated for the point I'm trying to make, so I went looking for some other ways to explain the differences.

The best one I found came from darrenbarefoot's blog:

Joe (one of our clients) has written a little comparative analysis of Web 1.0 vs. Web 2.0:

  • Web 1.0 was about reading, Web 2.0 is about writing
  • Web 1.0 was about companies, Web 2.0 is about communities
  • Web 1.0 was about client-server, Web 2.0 is about peer to peer
  • Web 1.0 was about HTML, Web 2.0 is about XML
  • Web 1.0 was about home pages, Web 2.0 is about blogs

He has about 15 such points. Here are a couple more, off the top of my head:

  • Web 1.0 was about lectures, Web 2.0 is about conversation
  • Web 1.0 was about advertising, Web 2.0 is about word of mouth
  • Web 1.0 was about services sold over the web, Web 2.0 is about web services

A couple of others that I would add to the list:

  • Web 1.0 was about getting everything on the home page, while Web 2.0 is about design and usability that is clean, simple and easy to navigate.
  • Web 1.0 was about pushing information to the masses, Web 2.0 is about pulling your own customized info.

Why Should I Care About Having a Web 2.0 site?
Our expectations of an organization are increasingly being set by their web presence. Google has become the way that most people do initial research and the first place most people will look for you is on the web. As people use more and more Web 2.0 sites, they come to expect certain things--a certain look, particular functionality, the ability to engage in 2-way conversation and to customize their interactions. If an organization's web site is merely an online brochure, then it's less likely to get people's attention. And if it looks like a home page from the late 90's, you'll look like your organization is woefully out-of-date.

So How Do We Go 2.0?
The question is, how do you take your site to the next level? Or if you're putting up your first site, how do you make it 2.0? Here are a couple of resources that will give you some ideas:

Don't worry about doing everything all at once. You can sketch out where you want to go with your site and then add features and functionality in a phased process. The point is to start changing your mindset from a 1.0 "brochureware" approach to a 2.0 "site as service" approach. Keep thinking about how your site can help your visitors DO something (Kathy Sierra calls it "helping users kick ass")  and you'll be on the right track. And don't forget--your organization needs to be Web 2.0-enabled, too.

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29 Essential Tools and Resources for Developing a Facebook App

Facebook_logo_3 Great resource in my email this morning from Rich McIver of {softwaredeveloper}.com on How to Develop a Hit Facebook Application. From the basics of Facebook's applications environment through coding and marketing the application, this article pulls together just about everything you'd need to create your own killer app and take it viral. Check it out if you or your organization are contemplating another way to leverage Facebook's social networking capabilities.


My Top 10 Tools

Jane Hart who, among other things, runs Jane's E-Learning Pick of the Day, asked me to share my Top 10 List of Learning Tools. This will be a bit of a re-hash of my Personal Learning Environment post from a few months ago, but will be a good update, as I've added and lost various tools in my arsenal since then. Note that these are the top 10--the ones I use most often. I could actually put together a top 20 list, though because I have many more that I don't have room to put in here.

In no particular order, really:

Firefox_3 1. Firefox Browser-- I've been using Firefox for close to a year now and the few times I've had to use Explorer on someone else's machine have made me CRAZY! I love the tabbed browsing and I love the fact that there are a bazillion extensions I can use to be more effective. It's also less buggy than Explorer and I like the fact that it's open source. With all that it has going for it, I don't understand why everyone doesn't use it.


Netvibes_logo 2. Netvibes --Once I use Firefox to get online, then Netvibes is my portal to just about everything else. I use it as a feed reader to keep tabs on my favorite blogs and searches that I've set up for Technorati and de.licio.us tags. I've also used widgets to set up links to some key websites that I need to visit frequently, my email accounts, my calendar and my To-Do lists. I see Netvibes as sort of my online dashboard from which I can access virtually everything I need. Very helpful when you're traveling and need to use someone else's machine, too.


Typepad 3. Typepad--Blogging is a key way I've been making sense of my world. I started with Blogger a few years ago, but fell in love with Typepad's greater range of options and my ability to customize, and I much prefer the look I can get with it. I have the premium version which lets me create unlimited blogs because I also use it to create website prototypes for clients and to play around with some ideas I have for using blogs in other ways.

Delicious 4. De.licio.us--I use de.licio.us a LOT. The tagging function helps me organize the info that I find online in ways that make sense to me, although I need to clean out my tags--I think they're a little out of control right now. Even better, though, is my ability to find new things based on other people's work. I do this two ways--First, I have a feed in my Netvibes to my network tag. These are the people whose bookmarking I follow because they always seem to find good stuff. I also have feeds to tags I'm following, like "nptech" or "PLE." This way I can see what other people think is worthwhile without having to do the searches myself. More often than not, I'll end up adding many items to my own bookmarks.  By the way--good article here on using de.licio.us to take "over the world."

Pbwiki_2 5 and 6. Wikispaces and PBWiki--I wrote awhile ago about how I've been using wikis to organize my own projects and learning, so I won't go into a lot of detail here. I also use wikis as "handouts" for any training I do--usually much more useful than paper versions. Wikispaces_logo Anyway, this one is a tie for me, as which tool I use seems to depend on my mood and what functionality I'm looking for. I like that PBWiki has some cool features, like being able to embed YackPack into your wiki and the Portfolio feature. But for whatever reason, I find Wikispaces easier for some of my more down and dirty projects, so I tend to pick that tool when I want to do something really fast.

7. Journals--This may shock some of you, but I'm NOT always on line. Sometimes inspiration strikes in other places and I need a journal to get it down. I've also been trying to do Morning Pages and more free-form writing because while some people may need to talk themselves to solutions, I find that I write myself to the answers I need. I used to use Moleskines, but lately I've been buying the $7.99 Sketch pads. I like the feel of the paper, which is important to me for some reason.

Slideshare 8 . Slideshare --Although I've been using Slideshare for months to upload some of my own presentations for conferences and trainings, I've just started to use it for learning. Sometimes I go with a particular topic in mind and sometimes I just browse. Usually I find really great stuff, or at least some intriguing ideas.

Stumble 9 . Stumbleupon--Doug Johnson had a great post the other day about how it's harder to find things serendipitously on-line than it is in the physical world. Like once Amazon knows your preferences, then you tend to only see books in the genres you've bought from. That's one of the reasons I like Stumble. When you first start using it you indicate the categories that interest you so that it can find sites for you that fall into those categories. I've basically checked off that I'm interested in everything, so when I click the "Stumble" button in Firefox, it will take me to some random new site I've never seen before. It's actually very addictive once you get started--and I've found some very cool stuff this way. It's also an excellent stimulus to creativity--the juxtaposition of different information can give you some good ideas.

Google_2 10. All things Google--OK, first I'm probably cheating here by lumping so many tools into one. But frankly, Google does a pretty good job of integrating things so to use one is often to use many. At any rate I, of course, use Google search quite a bit. That should go without saying. I'm also a big fan of Google Alerts, which gives me email updates anytime a search term I've set up is being used somewhere on the Web. Google Calendar is also useful, both for keeping me on track, as well as for keeping track of activities in various projects I'm managing. And yes, friends, despite my many posts about social networks, I still make extensive use of email. I guess this puts me in the "old fogey" category, but so be it. At any rate, Gmail has become my tool of choice for managing my email because it's so versatile. I LOVE the tagging feature--makes it far easier for me to find emails I need. And there are so many hacks that make me more productive. Frankly, I haven't been able to explore them all.  Plus, I can check email anywhere. Also good.

So that's my list of my Top 10 Tools for Learning. If you want to see more Top 10 Tools Lists, Jane is keeping track of them here. What's your Top 10 List of Tools?


Architectures of Control: How Design Influences the Ways We Use and Do Things

Just stumbled across a REALLY interesting blog called The Architectures of Control. It's maintained by Dan Lockton who says:

Increasingly, many products are being designed with features that intentionally restrict the way the user can behave, or enforce certain modes of behaviour. The same intentions are also evident in the design of many systems and environments.

Dan goes on to define architectures of control this way:

Architectures of control are features, structures or methods of operation designed into physical products, software, buildings, city layouts—or indeed any planned system with which a user interacts—which are intended to enforce, reinforce, or restrict certain modes of user behaviour.

While the use of architectures of control in computing is well-known, and a current issue of much debate (in terms of digital rights management, ‘trusted’ computing and network infrastructures themselves), it is apparent that technology—and a mindset that favours controlling users—is also offering increased opportunities for such architectures to be designed into a wide range of consumer products; yet, this trend has not been commonly recognised.

This, of course, isn't really new--control has often been inherent in the design of products and systems in the past. We have only to look at the Windows Operating system and the Catholic Church to see this principle at work.

What is new, I suspect (although I may be wrong) is the widespread use of intentional design to control and restrict user behavior.  That is, it seems as we become more aware of how the design of things influences how we interact with them, designers are choosing to use features to control user behavior more intentionally.

This raises a few questions and thoughts for me:

  • I'm not sure how I feel about the idea of "architectures of control." I instinctively recoil from the idea of "controlling" anything, yet I also recognize that it's inevitable--whatever we create invariably shapes how we interact with it, the customs that develop around the object or system, etc. It's unavoidable. And one person's "restriction" is another person's "liberation."

Take a look, for example at Dan's post on (Anti)public Seating, which includes a number of examples of how seating in parks, train stations and other public areas actually discourages people from sitting in or using those areas. Apparently one set of benches has been specifically designed so that homeless people won't sleep on them, with the effect that no one would want to sit on them. I personally see this as a restriction that serves no one well, but others obviously see it as a perfectly legitimate use of design principles for the public good.

  • What is the larger societal impact of a design approach that seeks to control and restrict? This, to me, ties back into the scarcity mindset I explored a few months ago. Scarcity is about control and restrictions. It would seem, then, that we have a mutually reinforcing dynamic going on where the more we see scarcity, the more we seek to control through design and the more we control through design, the smaller and more restricted the world becomes. Is using design to restrict behavior the symptom or the disease? Or both? And how does this really influence all the ways in which we see and interact with the world?
  • In looking at technology, the interplay between the open source movement, the growth of user-centric Web 2.0 tools, etc. makes things more confusing and difficult to discern.  The hoopla around Facebook as platform seems a perfect example of how the design of a thing can appear open, yet actually control, as this Read/Write Web post shows. Where else does this go on? Does it matter?
  • Despite what we know about design, it's still very often unintentional. Because how we interact with a product or system often happens below any real level of consciousness, how is it shaping our behavior in ways we don't really understand? In my system development work with organizations, we often run up against the fact that the design of their  customer systems is actually reinforcing the very behaviors staff want to change. So, for example, in a system that's supposed to help people independently prepare for and find employment, most of the service functions actually discourage people from taking any independent action. One of the challenges is getting people to recognize how design really does influence behavior. It's something that happens below the radar, so they don't really notice.

I see that this has become one of those rambling posts with no real conclusion--just some questions and observations. One immediate impact for me of reading this stuff is a greater awareness of the design of things and how they influence what I do. It also reminds me about the need to assume nothing and to question everything, including how objects and systems may encourage certain behaviors that I consider to be negative, but have not noticed.

I'd be curious to hear other people's responses to Dan's blog and how you see this playing out in your corner of the world. Is this something we should be paying attention to or is it just an academic exercise?


Have You RSS-Enabled Your Site? And If You Have, Can Readers Find Your Feeds?

Rss_2 While I think that many people are starting to get the idea of subscribing to RSS feeds to update themselves on the latest news and information in their field, I realized the other day that a lot of nonprofits haven't mastered the other side of the RSS equation--enabling RSS in their own sites so that others can sign up for automatic updates.  A few recent examples from my own work:

  • I'm developing a web site for one of my clients. They regularly receive email updates from a state  agency and wanted to share these updates on their site. I suggested that we might be able to capture the government agency's RSS feed so that this information could automatically be updated on my client's site without my client having to upload or manually enter the information. However, as it turns out, not a single section of the state agency's site is RSS-enabled--not even the "What's New" section or the sections that are regularly updated with statistical data. The only way for me to get information is to visit their site.
  • I'd like to develop a Netvibes page for the sector in which I work that could be shared with management and front-line staff. Unfortunately, the professional organizations, government agencies and most of the nonprofits in this sector have not enabled RSS on their sites, so there's little to put into the start page.

At first I thought this was just my own sector, so I started doing some Google searches on "nonprofit" to see a cross section of sites. Guess what? A significant number of them didn't have RSS either.

I expected this with smaller organizations, but was surprised to see it with larger nonprofits like this regional chapter of the Red Cross, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and even a pretty sophisticated site, like the American Lung Association. Although with the American Lung Association you can at least sign up for email updates.

I haven't figured out why this is going on. Part of this is ignorance, I'm sure--although it's a little scary to think that some of these larger organizations and state agencies don't know about RSS yet.

Even scarier is the possibility that these organizations know about RSS, but have chosen to not enable their sites. This is a shame, not only because this means organizations are losing out on creating an ongoing relationship with visitors to their sites by providing relevant, regularly updated content delivered directly to readers, but also because using RSS will increase a site's ranking in search engines.

In some cases, I can understand why RSS hasn't been enabled. If you run a site that's brochure-ware and, therefore, rarely updated, then RSS becomes less important. But this is a problem in and of itself because organizations that don't regularly add new content to their sites are in danger of being ignored altogether. If you're not regularly providing useful information online, then that's something you should seriously re-evaluate.

Another thing I observed--even those sites that had RSS didn't make it easy to sign up. A couple of examples of what I mean.

First, the Pew Charitable Trust site:

Pew_5  

As you can see, you can sign up for an email alert, but there's nothing to suggest RSS--unless you click on the link to the News Room. From there, you can then link to their RSS feeds. That's burying the feeds pretty deeply in the site, making it hard for someone to find them. 

Another confusing site, to a newbie at least, was the American Cancer Society. Note the little XML button at the bottom of the "In the News" section. The problem is that a lot of people have no idea what that little orange XML means.

Cancer_society_rss

Ironically, when you click on the button at the Cancer Society site, you're actually taken to a nicely done page that explains RSS, how to sign up for a reader, etc. It's just that you won't learn about RSS unless you click on the button and if you don't know about RSS, you're not likely to click on the button in the first place.

Some RSS Best Practices

This exercise made me realize that we should be identifying some best practices in using RSS. A couple that spring to mind:

  • Make RSS appropriate for your site by regularly updating content. At a minimum, try to have a "What's New" section of your site. Ideally, you would make several sections of your site more useful to people by providing updated content, including an organizational blog.
  • RSS-enable your site. If you're using blogging software, this is usually done automatically. But if you're having a web developer work on your site, then you will need to speak to them about enabling RSS. Also consider allowing people to receive updates via email if you're not already doing this.
  • Prominently feature a link to your RSS feed and your RSS Guide on the Home page of your site. Make it very visible and make it understandable for newbies--something like "Sign up for automatic updates" or "Get notified every time we update our site."

So here are the big questions for the day

  • Is your organization's web site RSS-enabled?
  • If if isn't, why haven't you set this up?
  • If it is, how easy is it for visitors to find and sign up for your feed(s)?

Slideshare Adds Audio+ PowerPoint Karaoke

Slideshare For those of us in love with Slideshare, via Techcrunch I see that there's a new feature--audio synchronization. This will be great for making your presentations "full service" for embedding into wikis, blogs, emails, etc. Here's a demo.

Also--while on the Slideshare site I noticed that PowerPoint Karaoke is getting hot. Apparently in this version, you present to someone else's slides as they are shown--randomly. Slideshare has helped things along by creating a Slideshare Randomizer that will automatically pull Creative Commons-licensed slides with tags you specify and run them for you.  More here on how to run your own karaoke event. Could be a fun way to end a training session or to run a fundraiser--have people get sponsors and then participate in a karaoke show-down.


Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants

NpcarnivalThis week's Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants is now up at Aspiration Tech. Be sure to stop by and take a look at this week's great posts and to wish Heather Carpenter good luck as she heads off to pursue her Ph.D. in Nonprofit Leadership at the University of San Diego.

Although this is Heather's last post at Aspiration Tech, you'll still be able to catch her at Nonprofit Leadership 601 where she'll be blogging about her new life.